I am currently employed at a psychiatric residential group home for youth who are transitioning out of in-patient behavioral health hospitals. The majority of the youth are survivors of childhood sexual assault by a family member. All of the girls who are sexual assault survivors have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with dissociative specification. Looking at the psychological profiles of the youth I work with, it is interesting to note the settings in which they experienced trauma. According to previous literature, "traumatic symptoms are more easily induced in animals when the aversive stimulus is delivered in an environment that the animal has long associated with safety..." (Powell, Honey, & Symbaluk, 2013, p. 379). Looking at the experiences of extreme trauma, being abused by a family member in the family home is an experience where the aversive stimulus is unpredictable and unexpected. Based on behavioral perspectives of learning theory, these childhood experiences should result in heightened levels of trauma and increased psychological distress.Given the unique nature of childhood sexual abuse, it should not be a surprise that childhood sexual abuse is one of the most distressing forms of adverse childhood experiences.
In a comparison of adverse childhood experiences, it was seen that childhood sexual abuse is second, only to chronic homelessness or foster care, in the ranking of traumatic experiences. Examining previous literature, Townsend (2013) found substantial empirical evidence to support the claim, “Child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem with the most serious array of consequences that children face.” Could it be that the serious consequences of childhood sexual abuse as a result of the increased traumatic value of such events given the unpredictable and unexpected nature of the experiences? If such is true, PTSD resulting from childhood sexual abuse should be increasingly important in comparison to experimental neurosis and human neurosis. More research should be focused on examining the development of therapeutic techniques that addresses the specific consequences of trauma that occurs in situations where such experiences are unexpected and in spaces where children are supposed to feel safe.
Powell, R. A., Honey, P. L., & Symbaluk, D. G. (2016). Introduction to Learning and Behavior. Cengage Learning.
Townsend, C. (2013). Prevalence and Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse Compared with Other Childhood Experiences. Charleston, SC, Darkness to Light.